One of the most repeated and misunderstood writing advice quotes comes from Mark Twain, who said, “write what you know.” So, if you misinterpreted this as I did once upon a time, you’re not alone.
Mr. Twain wasn’t referring to professions, events, people, etc. What he meant by that is digging deep and exploring your emotions. And let’s face it, you can’t bring authenticity to your writing without allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
As writers, we spend way too much time in our heads. We allow the fear of rejection or not-so-glowing reviews to block our creativity. Without realizing it, we get so caught up in writing the story that’s in our heads that we lock our own emotions away. And we do this while trying to tap into our character’s emotions. But how can we expect to do that without tapping into our own?
The next time you think you’ve got writer’s block, think again because it might just be that you’re simply allowing your fears to stifle your creativity by stifling your vulnerability.
Just like a method actor pulls from their past experiences and the emotions those experiences brought forth, a good writer brings their own emotions into their writing.
I doubt Bruce Willis ever took down a gang of terrorists in real life, but he did a damn good job of getting us to believe every minute of it in the Die Hard movies. So, when a fictional character you’ve created has to deal with something like a murderous psychopath, for instance, dig into your past emotions, some fear you had to deal with, and bring those emotions to the page.
Think back to that first day in a new school or your first day of a new job. Or how about the first time you had to stand and speak to a room full of people with all eyes on you? If you’re an introvert like I am, your heart was pounding so hard you feared you’d die of a heart attack before you could get a word out.
Ever been tongue-tied when meeting someone new for the first time or so unsure of yourself that it seemed impossible to be yourself? Maybe you babbled, or perhaps you couldn’t do anything but nod. Well, the next time one of your fictional characters has to deal with something life-threatening or simply scary because it’s unknown, dig deep and let your vulnerability soar.
If you don’t, you’re not only stifling your voice, but you’re also stifling your characters by keeping your readers at arm’s length and not truly letting them inside.
I’ll tell you, if an author doesn’t provoke me to tears, either in laughter or sorrow (and believe me when I tell you I’m brought to tears easily), it likely means their characters were only surface deep. Where’s the emotion? Where’s the heart? And more to the point, where’s the vulnerability? Because bringing all of that out in your characters means bringing that all out in yourself.
Now, let’s say your story deals with a subject foreign to you, and you find yourself struggling to identify any past experience that helps bring out those needed emotions in your character. Perhaps it’s a form of abuse, a rape or other violent act, or maybe the loss of someone close, and any one of these is simply something you’ve never dealt with. Don’t give up on your storyline. Instead, find someone who has and explore their memories and emotions. Then live through their experience in your writing.
We spend a lot of time honing our writing skills and learning how to craft a story. All parts of both are important, for certain. But how much time do we spend developing our characters and making sure they come across as real and authentic?
In closing, as you sit down to write that next story, keep in mind that as readers, we want stories that pull us in. Stories that make us feel and make us think. And as writers, that’s exactly what we want to bring to our readers’ bookshelves. To do that, your vulnerability is essential.
So, the next time you set out those writing tools and get ready to work on your latest story, don’t forget to put your true self on the table.